Famed Polish writer and traveler Kapuscinski (The Shadow of the Sun, 2001, etc.), who died in January 2007, pays honor to antiquity’s “Father of History.”
Herodotus, the 5th-century chronicler, scarcely figured in the curriculum when Kapuscinski was going to university just after WWII. Though a Polish translation had been completed, he recalls in opening, it went unpublished throughout Josef Stalin’s remaining years, its pages full of subtle warnings that imperial overreach and the cruelty of rulers would always be avenged one day. When a Polish Herodotus finally did appear, it went into Kapuscinski’s suitcase courtesy of the newspaper editor who sent the young man, bad suit and all, off to India and China as a correspondent. As he recounts, he quickly realized that he knew nothing, that “the more words I knew, the richer, fuller, and more variegated would be the world that opened before me, and which I could capture.” Inspired by the commonsensical Herodotus, who tried to explain the world beyond their gates to his fellow Greeks, Kapuscinski embarked on a series of travels that he details in his many other books and describes, sometimes allusively, here. One episode finds him wandering through Nasserite, prohibitionist Cairo looking for a discreet place in which to pitch an empty beer bottle; another sees him alternately spied on and chanted to in China (“With each passing day I thought of the Great Wall more and more as the Great Metaphor”); still another confronts him with the curious sight of an animated Louis Armstrong playing before a stony-faced audience of Sudanese, “unable to communicate much less partake of an emotional oneness.” Throughout, Kapuscinski tests and emulates Herodotus’s methods: “he wanders, looks, talks, listens, in order that he can later note down what he learned and saw, or simply to remember better.”
Author and subject, student and mentor, are perfectly matched. Illuminating reading for any aspiring journalist or travel writer, for any traveler, for any citizen of the world.